Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

I love books that focus on artists, and have always been fascinated with the 17th century Dutch Masters.  Their work always seemed to be telling me stories about people's lives.  When I lived in New York, I felt privileged to be able to look at the Vermeer painting, "Girl Asleep" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I mention this because Dominic Smith, the author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, placed a condition on winning a copy of this book on Authorbuzz.  He wanted readers to e-mail him about a 17th century Dutch painting. So I won my copy  by posting him a message regarding "Girl Asleep" and my experience of the painting.   This means that I must mention that I got the book for free from the author, yet this is still an honest review.


At the time when I was a teen obsessing about the Vermeer work mentioned above, I didn't know that there were woman painters in 17th century Holland.  Sara de Vos in Smith's novel is a fictional character, but there were real female 17th century Dutch Masters.  The best known is probably Judith Leyster. The Wikipedia article about her that I've linked contained a self portrait of Leyster that I can reproduce below because it's public domain.


I don't imagine that Leyster normally wore a ruff when she was painting because it would have gotten spattered with paint.  The fictional 17th century painter, Sara de Vos,  wouldn't have dressed that way either when she was working.    This self portrait represents how Judith Leyster wanted to be viewed. She dressed formally in order to gain respect.

 The Last Painting of Sara de Vos deals with women in the art world needing to be respected.  There were two female protagonists.   In addition to Sara de Vos, there was the contemporary art historian and curator, Ellie Shipley.   Ellie was hiding a crime that she committed when she was a poor struggling art history student during the 1950's.  Sara de Vos was also impoverished, and violated the regulations of her art guild.   Poor individuals may be forced to earn money in ways that society condemns.   If they become more prosperous, they have the luxury of becoming more circumspect,  but the past still haunts them.

It seems to me that Ellie felt a kinship with Sara de Vos, and that this was why she included Sara in her doctoral dissertation on Dutch woman painters of the 17th century even though this artist had only one authenticated surviving work at the time.  Ellie wanted to be Sara de Vos.  Ellie's advisor  thought Ellie should scrap her chapter on Sara de Vos saying "If Dickens had written a single book none of us would know his name."   I disagree and I'm pretty sure that Ellie did too.  There are some writers who are only known for one work that has echoed down the ages.  For example,  Miguel de Cervantes is only known for Don Quixote.  More recently,  Harper Lee may have written two books, but her reputation was built on only one.  I think that if Dickens had only written A Tale of Two Cities, we would still have remembered him.  The work by Sara de Vos is portrayed memorably in Smith's novel.  When I wish I could see a painting by a fictional artist, I know the author has done an excellent job of ushering the reader into the world of the character's creation.

Marty de Groot, the contemporary owner of the Sara de Vos painting that is the main focus of the narrative, was unsympathetic for a large portion of the novel. Another author would have allowed him to become a caricature, but Dominic Smith develops him so that he has dimension.  I didn't identify with Marty de Groot as I did with Ellie Shipley, but ultimately I felt that he was trying to be a decent human being.

I read a review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos on Goodreads which said that "nothing happened in the end".   That reviewer meant that there wasn't a big dramatic blow up over Ellie Shipley's crime.  Yet I felt that there was satisfying karmic balance even though it wasn't conventional justice.  



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